24 Feb 21. Today I will provide a few more comments in relation further capability cuts to Royal Air Force and Royal Navy as either announced in the Defence Command Paper published by the MOD on Monday or that have appeared out of the woodwork of Main Building subsequently. The third episode in this appalling saga of diminished responsibility – that of MOD cuts in respect of Army equipment capability, manpower cuts of 10,00 will follow in due course.
First, a word or two in respect of the Defence Command Strategic context – what the IR and within that structure, the Command Paper was supposed to be about and what, given the mass of obvious criticism seen from defence institutions, it certainly is not!
What a great pity that we are not allowed sight of Defence Planning Assumption that presumably led to this rather overdressed Defence Command Paper conclusions. There are other elements of IR still to come of course but deep down in the Defence Command paper one notes words that I believe suggested that ‘within the next two years we will publish the results of a review on military pay and pensions.’ Given such a large-scale reduction in planned portfolio of air assets we can expect that manpower savings in particular relation to non- replacement of capabilities – particularly in the Royal Air Force and Army to have played a large part in planning assumptions. Scant regard is played these days to ‘mass’ and I am in no doubt that we will come to regret some of the decisions that have sadly appeared in this so-called Defence Command Paper.
We may not have agreed on all matters defence but RUSI Director of Military Sciences Professor Peter Roberts own personal lambasting of the so-called Defence Command Paper in a RUSI published paper entitled ‘Requiring Perfect Alignment: The UK’s 2021 Defence Command Paper is in my view to be seriously applauded.
In his opening remarks he states his belief that the paper has used the language and imagery of gambling (bets and markers). This he suggests, “is not well-considered and prudent taxonomy of a threat-based defence review designed to meet the financial realities, as was promised by the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace last year. Still” he suggests “the Defence paper is consistent with its predecessors as an exercise that is shaped more by finance than threat perception”.
I will not repeat the full retort from Professor Robert here but recommend that you read this on RUSI website. However, towards the end of the retort he says this:
“This review has become personal for Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, who will both leave the MoD and the military before all of the changes come to pass. They are bequeathing the MoD a military (and specifically a British Army) reduced in size and capability to pay for the sunny uplands a decade or more in the future.
The great new military being promised will not just depend on the alignment of these multiple variables and factors, but also on delivering the detail that will sit behind them – populating the databases that enable the AI, cyber and virtual environments. Beyond the headlines of digital backbones, the reality is that such brittle structures can be snapped and become redundant. The MoD has a poor history of following through on details in the implementation and delivery of major programmes of change.
There is a considerable danger that all the Defence Command Paper’s rhetoric has been said before. Whether future leaders deliver the promised ‘jam’ of tomorrow, or agree that this paper constituted prudent decision-making, will determine the legacy of this government.
However one chooses to read the spin that is inherent throughout the 2021 Command Paper, however hard the MOD has worked within this document to remind of the Government’s commitment to spending £188-billion on defence over the coming four years – an increase of £24-billion or fourteen per cent as a, what they term as an investment in vision of security and prosperity in 2030, read through the lines and the IR is mostly about robbing Peter to pay Paul.
That the Command Paper chose to include a reminder that “Previous reviews have been over-ambitious and under-funded, leaving forces that were overstretched and under-equipped. But the Integrated Review’s refreshed strategy and increased funding offers defence an exciting opportunity to turn hollow forces into credible ones, modernising for the threats of the 2020s and beyond, and contributing to national prosperity in the process” is laughable. Using well-worn clichés of ‘doctrine’ ‘operating concepts’ and ‘force development’ which may or may not be appropriate we are told that the Royal Navy will have new ships and missiles, the RAF new fighters and sensors, and the Army will be more deployed and better protected. The paper goes on to suggest that “our armed forces will be integrated across all domains, joining up our people, equipment and information to increase their outputs and effectiveness. This marks a shift from mass mobilisation to information age speed, readiness and relevance for confronting the threats of the future”.
But, apart from the odd example or two of new spend such as the planned multi-purpose cables detection vessel for the Royal Navy, the reality of the Command Paper is, as I have already suggested, primarily about cuts in existing capability in order to balance the defence budget together with securing sufficient funding within the raised defence budget to invest in space, cyber, artificial intelligence and already announced defence procurement programmes.
The Command Paper is, as I probably suggested on Monday, as important for what it doesn’t teel you as it is for what it does. This morning we learn from a Times report that the number of Royal Marines is to fall by 400 personnel and that the Royal Air Force Regiment will lose 300 personnel. Words fail me.
As I had written in my initial review commentary on Monday, I am delighted to see the strong emphasis placed on maritime capital equipment programmes. If my calculations are correct the suggestion within the Command Paper is that the Royal Navy will have 24 frigates (the First Sea Lord conformed this number yesterday) and destroyers by 2030. However, the Secretary of State for Defence said yesterday that there will only be 20 frigates and destroyers by 2030!
We know that the Type 26 vessels (planned to be 8 and two of which are under construction at BAE Systems Glasgow shipyard) will be all encompassing submarine hunters and very well designed and equipped and so too, for a different set of mission purposes, will also be the 5 Type 31 vessels that will be built by Babcock International. But just how large will the proposed Type 32 frigates be?
The planned decommissioning of two older Type 23 frigates (HMS Monmouth and HMS Montrose) came as no surprise. But does that mean that when they have been sold that HMS Argyll, the oldest Type 23 vessel having been launched in 1989 and commissioned in 1991 and that is due for withdrawal in 2023 might also be decommissioned early?
I have in the meantime had a number of responses to my initial review questioning where I got the notion, without any specific suggestion of this within the Command Paper, that one of either HMS Bulwark or HMS Albion will be sold or maybe even both ships. The notion comes from the announced plan that in order to develop the Future Commando Force, part of what the RN says is a transformation of amphibious forces, one of the three Royal Fleet Auxiliary Bay class support ships (now classified as Landing Ship Docks) is to undergo a £50 million refit in order that it will be able to deliver what the Royal Navy terms as littoral strike capability. There is but one mention of Albion or Bulwark in the Command Paper – I suggest that the writing is once again on the wall for one or both ships. To be fair, the Government confirmed last November that “on current plans” the out of service dates for the two ships remains 2033 and 2034 respectively. However, I remain to be convinced!
In respect of airpower and despite confirming that the number of planned Typhoon squadrons is still planned to be seven, it came as little surprise that the 24 remaining (some are stored and have already been used to supply parts) Tranche One Typhoon military combat jets will go by 2025. Gone too by 2025 as well but probably earlier, are the remaining fleet of 36 RAF Hawk T1 trainer aircraft and that are also used by the Royal Navy for simulated ship attack training and the RAF Red Arrows. On the plus side, Tranch2 and 3 Typhoon aircraft will get enhanced AESA radar capability.
Numbers of Lockheed Martin F-35 B STOVL aircraft for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force has not, as expected by some, been capped at the 48 already on order or delivered but the term used in the Command Paper of “at least 48” is spurious.
RAF losses will also include 24 Puma Helicopters (replacement yet to be announced) 9 of the oldest Chinook Helicopters from the existing fleet of 60 are to be withdrawn and not replaced, the 5 remaining Sentry E3-D AWACs aircraft (the number of replacement Boeing 737 Wedgetail aircraft has as we expected been cut from 5 to 3) are to be withdrawn this year, 4 x BAe 146’s (this had already been announced with OSD planned for 2022) are also to go with no replacement suggested – although there are rumours of one Airbus A321 likely to be purchased as a replacement.
All five Raytheon Sentinel R Mk 1 long-range, wide-area battlefield surveillance aircraft capability and that has so brilliantly delivered critical intelligence and target tracking information since they went into service just ten years ago have now also been withdrawn – one of the most crass MOD decisions in respect of ISTAR capability that I have ever had the misfortune to witness.
Bottom line that although military fast jet capability capacity is further reduced the main brunt of impact from cuts and potential gaps has fallen on ISTAR capability. How the MOD will meet long standing NATO commitments having allowed Sentinel capability to already go and both gapping and reduction in ultimate AWACS commitments defeats me.
The removal of and none replacement of equipment capability in the Royal Air Force doesn’t end there. In under two years the RAF and indeed, the nation, will lose the services of the great workhorse of the air – the remaining 14 Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft. Just as they have decided to scrap rather than upgrade the workhorse of the Army in the form of Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle on a whim, so too has the Secretary of State for Defence fought hard to ensure that the RAF fleet of C-130J‘s and that remain crucial to so many elements of the UK military including special forces will soon be no longer. Along with the premature withdrawal of Raytheon R1 Sentinel capability I regard the loss of C-130J and Warrior as being the outstanding decision of failure both in the SDSR 0f 2105 and the 2021 Integrated Review. We will live to regret each and every one of these bad decisions.
CHW (London – 24th March 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785